Process Insights

High-Volume Parts Production

EMP Inc. Changing the Value of Production Through Process Enhancement

When Brian Larche purchased Engineered Machined Products (EMP) in Escanaba, Michigan in 1991, it was an automotive parts production shop with dieseldiesela great deal of opportunity.

Larche and his team seized that opportunity, adding to it with a vision of bringing more modern, technologically advanced manufacturing processes to the company's diesel engine market niche.

EMP focused on being a "problem solver" for its clients, providing them more customer service, R&D innovation and high-volume productivity methodology than ever before, in order to remain not only viable but also globally competitive. Larche did this by combining the "Upper Peninsula" work ethic and intellectual craftsmanship of his dedicated 500 person operational staff with an investment in about 200 CNC machines. This included a significant contribution for automated and integrated work cell technology and equipment from Makino.

Steve Kobasic, general manager of EMP's two-plant Escanaba operation, says the correlating results are obvious. "We have had double digit annual growth, and are now over $300 million in annual sales. One of the ways to avoid the products that we produce going to overseas competitors is to detail machine the complex parts through automation. Foreign operations are not competitive on material, though they certainly are on labor costs. But, with the automation supplied by Makino, we can make ourselves very competitive with labor costs through high-volume production.

"Cycle times and lead times for many of our production processes have improved dramatically due to this investment in automation, to the point where we continue to add employees to help with the increasing volume. Some production parts that we previously manufactured at a rate of two an hour we are now manufacturing at a rate of 126 an hour. Some processes that used to take 12 weeks can now be completed in six. The quality of product is actually better, and we have become more valuable to our customers. It has been an exciting venture thanks to Makino turnkey and systems integration and also the Makino-EMP 'share-key' joint integration."

Re-Engineering Teamwork With A Vision

Vision starts at the top, says Kobasic, but teamwork produces the results. "Brian Larche told us all a very simple message–'Taking this route with technology is what we are going to do, and we know there are going to be problems. I just ask that everybody deal with them in a positive fashion, and I do not want anybody to panic. I know it is not going to be perfect, but this is the way we need to go to not only survive, but to flourish.'

"His statement got us all on the same page and in a good mindset," Kobasic continues. "This concept of technology was an all-new process, and there were a lot challenges faced by our team. Now, many of those same people who were internal leaders in challenge are now the biggest internal advocates of integrated automation. Our operators have less physical work to do, and they can now do more work with their minds. It is fun to see the operators who really use the equipment day in and day out now challenge management when parts are not run in the automation process upon which they are working. Our processes are now being driven by employees on the floor, not just from the top. And our labor content, per part, is dropping. That is what we have to do to be competitive and productive."

Not only does EMP offer customers advanced technology in machining and automation solutions, but the company also has state-of-the-art computer software and hardware technology to ensure total integration. EMP also provides its own product designs, picture designs and programming services.

"We truly want to be a full-service shop," says Kobasic. "That is how we evolved, and it is the foundation for our name--Engineered Machined Products. That concentration drives the rest of our company. Customers come to us when they have performance problems on products and our R&D capability will help them remove those roadblocks and fix those problems through rapid prototype development, often in less than a week."

Intellectual Innovation

Kobasic notes that EMP had a vision back in the 1990s to be a leader not only in part production, but also in developing patents and trademarks to improve diesel engine operations. The company now has dozens of patents in production or development that have made significant changes in the diesel engine industry.

"The water pump and oil pump industry has not changed much since the days of the Model T, with engine RPM belt-drive or gear-drive systems," says Kobasic. "Our technology allows these systems to be independent of engine RPM. We also have developed electronic-powered oil pumps, water pumps, oil filtration and oil management systems.

"As the diesel power industry has more emission constraints put upon it, we have accepted the challenge to remove some of the causes of these problems that takes away horsepower and fuel efficiency, and which lead to emission problems. We even have technology that allows the oil and water pumping to be escalated or deescalated depending upon weather or traffic conditions, since they are controlled independent of the engine and RPM power. We also have developed integrated valves and thermostats and some other revelations for the industry.

"Major changes are planned for diesel engine technology by 2007. We are already ahead of the curve and our competition, which will not only benefit our company and its employees but also the industry and our customers. We saw things back in the 1990s our customers did not see, which makes us valuable partners with them today. And, we see things on the horizon that other experts in the industry have not thought about, improving our value for tomorrow."

Automated Cell/Integrated Manufacturing

EMP has two other facilities, one in Greenfield, Indiana, and one in Indianapolis. These plants are primarily assembly and warehouse facilities for what is manufactured in the U.P. Four major Makino machining cells operate out of Escanaba, which include the Makino horizontal milling machines, the robotic operations, work setting and work transfer stations, pallet shuttles, conveyor systems and multi-function operations.

One is called the "rail line," which is a robust line composed of 12 Makino J55s and 8 J66s, all integrated with finishing and washing equipment for multiple "rail line" part production. The second is a J66, 16-machine cell integrated into four machines per line, which is used to make a rocker arm carrier for six-liter diesel engines. These primarily machine aluminum product, requiring high RPM and low torque.

A third line is a three-machine Makino a81 robotic cell for manufacturing and moving a new "rail line" product. The fourth is a line of 12 Makino a51s manufacturing a machine product for a major agricultural implement company, which is being expanded to 18 machines in order to increase production volume.

Brian Brown is the manufacturing engineer who initiated the high pressure "rail line," which fellow manufacturing engineer Troy Povich now monitors. The cell shuttles stripper plates on standup tombstones, with two rails on each plate, to the Makino horizontal machining centers.

"The part is ductile iron, high tensile strength, eighty thousand PSI," says Brown. "The automation reduces the labor needed on the machining, so we were able to put a gantry robot over two of the machining lines and two of the J66s. The gantry is able to flip the part coming on and off, with no one touching the part in between during machining.

"There are now four operations to complete this part, producing 10 per line. With the original operation, we had six operations plus part setup and transfer. We now always have parts in the queue, and we took out all of the operation inconsistencies and inefficiencies. This large of a capacity operation allows us to route work through any and all of the four units, depending upon capacity and scheduled/non-scheduled downtime."

Cell Flexibility

Brown adds the Makino units are flexible enough to serve the needs of the cell as well as to operate as stand-alone horizontal machining centers. "You can refixture and get two-faced machining with no pallet changer. You can machine one side while the opposite side is being loaded and unloaded with a robot, with an index faster than a pallet change. That is why we went with two-face machining in the cell.

"The line is fairly flexible to allow for differing features and moves on a given operation through some simple program or tool changes, fixture modifications or hydraulic adjustments. We do not have to find the machine tools, or change the sizes, and we are able to keep the same gantry robot by simply changing the end-arm tool in order to maintain workflow. In an older model machine or more rigid manufacturing style, we would have to totally rebuild the line, dropping between 25 to 50 percent of our production for up to about a month. Makino has integration kits which allow for the converting and fixturing of four machines in about seven to 10 days per line."

This flexibility also allows for operation adjustments to improve productivity, according to Povich. "When it originally went into operation, the Makino cell was producing about 106 pieces an hour. Through enhancements, we brought that up to 110. We now need to go up to 130 pieces an hour to meet customer order and leadtime.

"We do a number of plugging, drilling, milling, tapping and porting operations with fairly unusual tolerances and configurations. But the flexibility of this system allows us to investigate with the end user and our customer what features we can eliminate in order to gain cycle time throughout the process."

The operation of the cell also has had positive ripple effects on many other elements of the business, according to Povich. "We can easily make changes, corrections or new fixtures for a part on the floor. This further improves our overall operation and customer service. This also allows us to reallocate the operator's time from making routine changes to ensuring that the automation equipment is properly running, further improving our productivity.

Reallocating Labor

The rocker arm line is a group of four lines, each of which consists of four Makino J66s in a serial-line setup. This "free part transfer" line is different than the other J-Series machine line, according to Rob Jensen, manager of manufacturing engineering, because the part does move from machine to machine for different milling functions.

"The fixture stays in the machine, the parts transfer one at a time and are then unloaded and loaded at one end of the operation," says Jensen. "The implementation was similar to the other J-Series line, with Makino turnkey integration folks working day and night for three months to install and integrate 32 machines and gantry robots. It was quite an effort.

"This line produces a die cast aluminum part that is milled, drilled and tapped with two- and three-flute diamond tools that were designed by Makino and EMP in a "share-key" fashion. The part runs with almost no intervention, and being that each is a four-line, four-machine setup, we only need one operator for two or three machines, as opposed to one operator for two machines in standard manufacturing. That would have required eight people per shift, and we run three shifts. Now, it only requires two people per shift, one each to load and unload each end of the cell and to monitor operations."

Jensen adds this allows EMP to reallocate labor to the areas where people are most needed, and where they can best put to use Makino operations training. "Before our machines were even installed and running, we had people who knew what the machines were going to do, how they were going to do it, how to start the machines, how to make things work, and our maintenance people understood how to best keep them operational.

"Makino project personnel helped us integrate these operations as well as teach our people how to maintain them. These professionals know what each control function will do and know how to best utilize any tool in that control. Spindle load monitoring, tool-life monitoring and tool breakage detection operations have now become standard operating procedures for EMP. These assets are valuable in saving substantial time and money in tooling alone. Makino has also written into the control functions the elimination of wasted time and movement, allowing for multiple tooling and pallet changing activities. A number of machines might be able to do work for us, but the Makino machines are more efficient and more value-added than anything else."

Automation and Speed One

Makino a81 machine was initially introduced to EMP in order to run prototypes of a new "rail line," which has since gone into full production in a cell with a total of three a81s. Mike Biehn, senior manufacturing engineer on this cell line, took care of the part programming, fixturing and loading sequences in getting it ready for integrated automation.

"Two of the a81s run a ten operation, four part per tombstone ductile iron rail that is 32-inches long. They are used for a straight six diesel engine and a steel rail diesel engine. The parts are face machined and drilled for mounting holes, injector ports are roughed out and thread milled, and some mounting clip holes are also milled. These parts also have acoustic ports milled into them that help quiet the rail when it is running.

"The speed of the a81 and the automated cell are tremendous. It saves us at least a good portion of the time we would have had to run on another machine. Plus, quality comes with automation. You cannot automate a suspect process, so we know we are going to get better quality on very complex parts and thin body-wall parts. As a QS-9000 certified operation, that is essential to us, and the Makino machinery has helped make that possible."

"It is nice and refreshing to see everyone at EMP exhibit a 'Why can't we do this now?' attitude," says Biehn. "And, with a couple of phone calls to the application department at Makino, the next thing you know we are putting our ideas into the machines and making results happen."

Eliminating Errors and Routine Downtime

Another benefit of automation is that it eliminates simple human error. "It is the minor error in one of 25,000 parts that really upsets the customer. And that one error is just as unacceptable to EMP," says Povich. "Every piece is a valuable piece, especially to the customer.

"With the Makino automation, and some process improvements that the automation systems drove to our material suppliers, our suppliers have cut their scrap rate by five percent. This allowed us to drop our scrap rate by another five percent. That is significant in an operation like EMP where we run to about 85 to 90 percent capacity and several hundred thousand parts."

One reason EMP is able to run this high of a capacity is the quality of the Makino machines and cells, combined with the creative brain-power of EMP. "We have very little downtime, because we schedule routine downtime on the weekends, rotating it between our three shifts," says Kobasic.

"This allows us to regularly handle routine maintenance, thus enhancing uptime during our peak weekly needs. And, segmenting certain functions from the work cells has also helped. Our central coolant system eliminates the need for us to address coolant issues on each machine or in the cells.We can address routine maintenance while the machines and cells are still running due to this central supply system. It also allows us to deal with coolant quality issue contingencies, which can be adjusted before they become a problem."

Minimizing Leadtimes

Integrated automation is all about minimizing leadtimes for EMP, according to Brown. "One of our latest projects was one of the most significant lead-time drops I have ever heard of or seen in the industry. That is because it was the result of a "share-key" solution between Makino and EMP.

"We took what would normally have been a 26- to 32-week timeline and produced it in nine weeks. Suppliers, vendors, Makino and EMP worked together to make it happen in a very impressive fashion."

"Makino not only provides a process that works, but one that is structured to drive out production and labor costs," says Brown. "The systems help reduce our operator intervention, cycle time in comparison to other cells…not just single station machines, vendor and supplier channel enhancements and inventory control.

"EMP and Makino work very well together on the application sites, installation sites and automation sites. Makino has outstanding automation and applications teams, as does EMP."

Brown adds success at EMP with Makino is a simple formula. "Together we rely on each other and get the job done. That's how we achieve lead-time reduction and productivity enhancement in the U.P.: technology and teamwork"!

For additional information about Engineered Machined Products, Inc., and the products and services they offer, contact them at 3111 N. 28th Street, P.O. Box 1246, Escanaba, Michigan 49829. Phone them at 906-786-8404 or visit them on the Web at